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Blindness Is No Barrier For This Scottish Adventurer

Despite a near-complete loss of sight, adventurer and full-time thrill-seeker Dean Dunbar holds multiple world firsts in everything from aquaseiling to stand-up paddleboarding

On Dean Dunbar’s Extreme Dreams website, clicking on a link allows you to see the page ‘through Dean’s eyes’. In truth, however, the blocks of barely visible colours are an improvement on his vision, which is permanently obstructed by floating ‘debris’. Year on year, his sight deteriorates a little further; year on year, he achieves the extraordinary.

Although registered as blind at the age of 27, Dunbar, now 49, refused to let a lack of sight obstruct his vision for a life of adventure. A skydive in 1998 got him hooked on adrenaline-fuelled activities and his outdoor CV ever since would make for impressive reading, with or without the benefit of sight.

For the man who has mastered the art of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), white-water sledged down one of the world’s highest waterfalls and swum across the Gulf of Corryvreckan, life – no matter the cards you’re dealt – is for living.

If this little blind guy from Scotland can do it then why can’t you?

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Q: Have you always had a keen sense of adventure?
A: ‘I was registered blind in 1996 and in 1998 I did a charity tandem skydive – that's where it all started. The adrenaline rush from doing that got me hooked. Before I did that I had no interest in that sort of thing, but my love for adventure came on after the skydive. For me it's all about the adrenaline rush. I'm just an adrenaline junkie, and I'm always looking for my next fix.’

Q: How do you manage to overcome your lack of vision, particularly in activities like SUP that require so much balance?
A: ‘When I started stand-up paddleboarding a lot of the people I was going out on the water with said that normally when you learn to stand-up paddleboard you have to look at the horizon to get your balance, but obviously I don't have a horizon to look at. The balance is just something that seems to have come naturally – it's just one of those things. I think blind people probably have a reasonable amount of balance anyway, because they obviously can't rely on their sight to help them out.’

Q: Why did you set up Extreme Dreams?
A: ‘I launched the website in 2002. In the early days of my adventures I used to do a lot of things with other companies, so I would phone up a company and say, “Hi I would like to come and do some paragliding with you,” and they would say, “Yeah no problem at all.” Then I would say, “Oh by the way I'm registered blind” and they would do a complete 180: citing either health and safety issues or some other excuse.’

‘Nine out of 10 times, as soon as I mentioned the word ‘blind’, that would be a deal breaker. For the one out of 10 that said yes I was so grateful that I thought, how can I say an extra thank you to them? I created Extreme Dreams to post about my experiences with that company and explain how they went the extra mile and helped me out. As time has gone on, people have become a little bit more relaxed with my disability and now when I phone them up they tend to say, “We don't know if we can definitely do it, but why don’t you come along and we can at least have a go,” whereas in the past it was a simple no. Extreme Dreams was set up to promote the stuff I've done and hopefully inspire others to challenge themselves in similar ways.’

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Q: You’ve achieved numerous world firsts – is there one that you’re most proud of?
A: ‘Probably the last one (it's always going to be the last one) which was the SUP to St Kilda. St Kilda is a group of islands off the east coast of Scotland and it's one of the most remote parts of the British Isles. For 25 years I've been wanting to go there and in 2009 I tried to kayak there with a friend of mine, Patrick Winterton, but the weather was too bad so we couldn't do it. Last year I approached him asking if he thought I could SUP there and he said: “Yes definitely, I'll be your sighted guide.”

‘We teamed up last year and I became the first person to stand-up paddle board out to the island. It was just an amazing experience, albeit very hard work and very scary at times. My sight caused me more issues than I thought it was going to, so that freaked me out a little bit, but Patrick was such an awesome guy, and so calm and relaxed, which made a heck of a difference. There was at least one point when I could have pulled the plug, but thanks to Patrick’s calmness I made it across.’

Q: With your challenges, how do you pick your guides?
A: ‘I have different guides for different activities. My wife is my guide for a lot of the activities but then there are also challenges that require a bit more technical expertise and fortunately along the way I've picked up a lot of good friends who are experts in their field. When I went to abseil the UK's highest waterfall, for example, I had a guy named Ben Starkie, who is the leading waterfall guide in the country. When I SUP'd to St Kilda last year I had Patrick – who is a major sea kayaking adventurer – helping me, so I'm very lucky.’

Q: Many of your challenges have been on the water – is that intentional?
A: ‘No that's just the way it's gone to be honest. The ideas for these challenges are just things I come up with and they're things friends come up with, and for the last four or five years stand-up paddle boarding happens to have been the focus, but normally I dip in and out of things. SUP has taken over in the last four or five years, but as of next year I'm going to cut down on the SUP a bit and start mixing it up again.’

Q: What lesson do you think others can learn from your triumph over adversity?
A: ‘If this little blind guy from Scotland can do it then why can’t you? I’ve learned that I can push myself further than I have so far and I'm still searching for that limit.’

Find out more about Extreme Dreams and see the world through Dean’s eyes at Extremedreams.co.uk. Follow him @deandunbarextreme

Words: Issac Williams

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